Home Invasion
You never really know someone until you see where they live

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, May 18, 2008

IF YOU'RE A FULL HOUR EARLY, you have to decide. Do you knock and risk being rude, or do you sit in the car and listen to the radio and reprogram the buttons for an hour, then go in. It depends on how well you know the person, I suppose. He's a colleague, someone I've worked with for years and years, practically a brother.

I stomp confidently up the front steps. The door is red, same as my front door. The siding is a greenish tan, same as my siding, and the wood trim is crisp white, same as mine. I can't believe that, all these years, we've had the same color houses.

We've never seen each other, or talked to each other, out of a work setting. This is weird.

I pull out my cellphone and call him.

"Hello? I'm standing at your front door an hour early," I say. "I can, um, wait."

He hangs up, and I hear the thump of footsteps, and then the door opens. "Come on in!" he says. "How are you? Sorry, I was running. Sorry."

I don't know why he's apologizing for running, or what he even means -- like on an exercise machine or something? He doesn't look out of breath. He's in sweats, a T-shirt. I can't quite make eye contact. This is so strangely awkward. Normally, like so many co-workers these days, we deal with each other on the phone. Voices. If we see each other at all, it's if I'm in the city for a work function. Co-workers.

He leads me immediately to his children, two beautiful doe-eyed girls playing paper dolls while a basketball game airs silently on the TV. He fusses over them, tries to engage them in conversation about me and my girls, compares ages, heights. His girls politely wear the look: Who is this lady? He hangs up a jacket, throws out a newspaper, moves books from the coffee table to the bookshelf.

"You're picking up?" I say. "I didn't peg you for a picker-upper -- "

"I don't like mess," he says.

This is startling information. This completely throws me. This man, with whom I've worked for a decade, is in the space of 10 minutes turning into someone new.

"We have the same color house," I tell him. "Exactly the same."

"That's weird," he says.

"You probably wouldn't want to go in mine, though," I say. "It's not neat like this."

"You make it sound like you're messy," he says. "I don't believe that for a second."

I am speechless. He doesn't know I'm a slob? How could he not know this? How could he? I look around.

"So, what do you do with all your stacks of junk?" I ask. "I have piles of stuff from 2004 I can't figure out what to do with. A lot of the earlier stuff is in piles in the basement."

"Wow," he says.

We look at each other. We are old friends, like brother and sister, and yet somehow we are only just now getting to know each other. This is what can happen when you visit someone's house for the first time.

His wife comes home, carrying shopping bags.

"I'm early," I say, apologetically. I've met her a few times but always at work. Now, I have to get to know her all over again, too. She's more intense than I remember, challenging. She pulls out one of those bottled Starbucks Frappuccinos, flashes it at him, and his eyes light up. I say no thanks, while he gets two glasses, fills them with ice. She pours. We sit, they sip.

"You guys share a Frappuccino?" I say. "My God, my husband and I put back three of them each."

The girls run in, run outside. We watch them dig for bugs and admire the differences: one in frills, dancing; one intense and cerebral.

They have colorful bug houses to put the bugs in. My girls use old shoe boxes that I stabbed holes in with a knife. I should get them real bug houses. I should pick up more. I should throw out every stack of junk dated before 2004, then move forward to 2005 and 2006. This is another thing that can happen when you visit a friend's house for the first time; suddenly you want to redo yours.

"I can't believe this house," I say. "You guys live in a Pottery Barn catalogue." They look at me. "It's a compliment," I say. It absolutely is. I love the life I see here. It's everything my life was supposed to be, back when I was trying to get it right. Then I gave up and more or less started enjoying the turmoil. More or less.

"How do you get it like this?" I say. "How do you get your life like this?" They wear puzzled expressions.

"You're the one with the perfect life," he says. "You're the one with everything all together."

That cracks me up. "You are never invited to my house," I say.

"I wouldn't judge," he says.

"You would have a hard time integrating the information," I say.

How strangely and scarily intimate, a home.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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